More Twists, Fewer Jumps

Long before the World Rally Championship began, a group of international events in several countries enjoyed the reputation of being tough, honest-to-goodness competitions which gave immense pleasure to competitors, spectators and, indeed, organisers. Each had its own character, and there was a marked difference between them not only in their terrain but in style, speed and even the methods they used to define routes, set up controls, award penalties and so on.

The variety was just what people wanted and expected. It was the way they liked their rallying, and it was unthinkable that a visit to the Safari could be made using the strategy employed for the Monte Carlo Rally, or that a thorough understanding of RAC Rally format would be of any use on the Acropolis or the Rally or the Thousand Lakes.

Organisers knew precisely what kind of contest could best be held on the terrain they had available, and ran their rallies accordingly, between them offering competitors a wide variety of styles which catered for every possible preference. There was plenty of choice, and if a driver liked the idea of diversity, he had a wide assortment from which to choose and could tackle a snow rally one month, the constant pressure of an African endurance rally the next, then the heat and rocks of Greek mountains followed by a virtual road race over tortuous alpine tarmac.

Each had its own way of doing things. Navigation, timing and penalty systems were all different: each group of organisers had its own ideas on how a roadbook should be presented, if at all; and anyone going from one rally to another was offered a completely different type of event in almost every respect.

Sadly, disgustingly, almost criminally, but by no means inevitably, rallies are now being tarred by the same bland brush of conformity wielded by FISA. Even though it professes to have no wish to destroy the character of individual rallies, that is precisely what it is doing.

It is even seeking to destroy the Safari Rally by insisting on special stages out in the deserted bush where none is necessary, flying finish controls, timing in seconds and reduced average speeds. Perhaps it does actually seek the fall from popularity of that great Kenyan classic, or perhaps it is more a case of creating rules not for the good of the sport but merely to provide a means of asserting authority.

At the end of August that magnificent Finnish contest, The Rally of the Thousand Lakes, was another to suffer. It has always been held over hard, smooth, but loose-surfaced roads undulating their way through dense pine forests and past picturesque lakes. Finnish road makers of old seemed to shun cuttings and embankments and took their tracks over the small hills rather than through them, leaving the surfaces untarred in order that they might better survive the rigours of severe, penetrating winter frost.

On such roads, Finland’s premier rally acquired a unique character, for the bends seemed to have an easy, flowing rhythm as one merged naturally with another, and the countless crests gave rise to more jumps per mile than any other rally we can think of. Speeds became progressively higher but no-one seemed to complain, for that was part of the event’s character. In any case, competitors control their own speeds, and if they find themselves going too fast for safety, they have the complete solution — they merely slow down!

FISA seems to have overlooked (or ignored) that simple fact, and has attempted to lower speeds by regulation. As a result, organisers, those in Finland included, have been searching for roads which can be tackled competitively at lower averages.

Gone this year were many of the former traditional and highly popular Thousand Lakes stages, whilst others had their averages reduced by deviations off the main tracks through twisty farmyards. New stages were narrower, twistier, less undulating, and on softer surfaces. This meant far more gear changes, and more need for hard acceleration out of slow corners, giving four-wheel drive cars a distinct advantage.

At first, the organisers were at a loss as to how they would be able to satisfy FISA by reducing stage averages, and they did consider introducing artificial chicanes. Fortunately, this was not done, but the dropping of traditional roads and the introduction of others did change the event’s character, and was not at all popular with competitors or with spectators.

The futility of FISA’s alleged quest for safety and the absence of logic from their argument can best be demonstrated by a stage on which the overall average speed is reduced from an estimated 80 mph to an estimated 70 mph by the introduction of two slow deviations through farmyards. The overall average may have been reduced, but on sections outside those farmyards cars’ speeds can still be as high as 100 mph in both cases.

Reducing the average does not reduce the maximum speed which a car might achieve, and therefore does absolutely nothing in the cause of safety. That FISA cannot grasp this simple mathematical fact is proof that it understands little of the practical side of rallying and is quite unqualified to administer it, and to foist pointless rules on organisers who would do an excellent job if allowed to get on with things in their own way.

The Thousand Lakes organisers are a practical, dedicated, efficient bunch who travel to many other events in search of ideas which they may be able to incorporate in their own event. They were very concerned about how the new-style event would be received this year and, in view of competitors’ reactions, what they do next year remains to be seen.

The rally has always been on the short side, running from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, so it was well within the distance limit which is another of FISA’s demands. As if to compensate for the change of format, they started a day earlier this year, and increased the stage distance from 237 miles to 315.

Practice for the Thousand Lakes has been partly concerned with revising old notes and partly with refreshing memories, for many of Finland’s national drivers, unaccustomed to pace notes, perfected the art of memorising stage roads so well that professionals were forced to do likewise. This year, more notes had to be made from scratch, and memories restocked, so work during the two week recce period was pretty concentrated.

Based at Jyväskylä in central Finland, the rally is centred at the Sandpiper Hotel just outside the town, a spacious, comfortable, well-equipped but prohibitively expensive establishment offering excellent facilities for the rally but hardly the place for a privateer on a limited budget. Fortunately there are much more reasonable hostelries nearby, and a variety of lakeside log cabins to rent.

Lancia has already clinched the World Rally Championship for Makes, but its three drivers are still in the running for the drivers’ title. Understandably, only the two Finns from the team, Markku Alén and Juha Kankkunen, tackled the Thousand Lakes. Massimo Biasion stayed at home in Italy, for this was not one of the events on which he was expected to shine, and it was therefore not included in his schedule.

Mazda Europe, now confident that transmission weaknesses have been overcome, sent two 4WD 323s for Timo Salonen and Ingvar Carlsson, and these were backed by two near-similar cars from Mazda Finland for Mikael Sundstrom and Harri Toivonen, and one from Mazda Sweden for Thorbjorn Edling.

After an unhappy year in which its few appearances have resulted in failures, Ford came back with two Sierra Cosworths for Stig Blomqvist and Ari Vatanen, whilst another virtual comeback was that of Audi, with a 200 Quattro for Hannu Mikkola. An Audi Coupé’ Quattro was driven privately by Per Eklund, and similar cars by Finns Timo Heinonen, Tomi Palmqvist and Sebastian Lindholm.

A Mitsubishi Starion Turbo from the team’s base in Essex was driven by Finn Lasse Lampi, whilst Mats Jonsson from Sweden and Sepp Haider from Austria drove Kadett GSIs for the Opel team.

Finland has had a summer as wet as England’s, and at the end of August the sky was grey and heavy, the lakes at high level and the forest roads softer than usual and very slippery. The rain stopped at intervals, but conditions nevertheless favoured four-wheel drive cars and it was no surprise that the two Lancias and Salonen’s Mazda were up front from the start.

Mikkola’s rally did not last long. On a narrow, twisty section of stage three, the big Audi sideswiped a tree on the left and was flung over to the right to crash sideways so violently into another tree that its boot section was almost ripped off the car. Fortunately, neither Mikkola nor Arne Hertz were injured, but the car was so badly damaged that there was no hope of continuing. Kankkunen hit the same tree on the left, but was able to continue with no more than a dented door pillar.

Toivonen stopped when his Mazda’s gearbox broke, whilst Sundstrom’s also broke but was replaced. Salonen was having trouble selecting gears, but he put that down to himself, not his gearbox. Not long afterwards, Carlsson’s Mazda began consuming oil at an alarming rate and eventually stopped with piston failure, perhaps due to an ignition timing slip and perhaps to insufficient running in.

Much later in the rally, Salonen’s car succumbed in similar circumstances, and one imagines that the team will now seek another engine builder to replace their Swedish supplier.

Eklund had his front left strut jam in the compressed position and drove his Audi off a stage with only three wheels touching the ground. Later, Kankkunen also did a spot of three-wheeling when his right rear wishbone broke, causing the wheel to fold under the car. The car became so difficult to control that Kankkunen stopped, removed and threw away the remains of the wheel, and continued to the stage finish on just three!

The soft roads were cutting up so badly that the going was indeed difficult for the late runners, especially those in Group N cars. An exception was Alessandro Fiorio who, as a B-seeded driver, was at number 19 in his Lancia Delta. He was thus driving in far better conditions than his group rivals and won the category comfortably, although he was given a run for his money by Hämäläinen until his Ford Sierra Cosworth blew its head gasket.

Up front by this time, Alén was extending his lead, team-mate Kankkunen having dropped down. Behind the leader, the two Ford drivers were having something of a fight, but this was eventually resolved when Vatanen moved ahead.

On one tarmac stage in a town, both cars slid into traffic bollards, Vatanen then needing a new drive-shaft and suspension but Blomqvist only a new wheel. They had been using Monte Carlo type racing tyres which warm up quickly, but they had in fact overheated, causing loss of adhesion. The delays allowed Blomqvist to get ahead of Vatanen, but it was not long before their positions were reversed again.

Kankkunen needed a new gearbox, and remarked later that he had experienced more trouble on this rally than during the past two years put together. At one service point he was even heard remarking to his father, “It would be a good day to go duck shooting!”

Eklund began having gear selection trouble which became so bad that eventually co-driver Dave Whittock had to do the gear-changing as Well as read the notes, and even had to hold the lever in gear as they drove along the stages. His left palm was red and swollen when they came to the finish — in fourth place.

The result means that Massimo Biasion is now back in third place in the championship, six points behind Alen and Kankkunen who share the lead. In the remaining rounds there is clearly going to be quite a battle, if Lancia’s team management allows it.

Despite the unwarranted interference by FISA, the Rally of The Thousand Lakes was nevertheless a huge success and an example of first class organisation.

It would be much better, of course, if FISA kept its meddling hands off the world’s great rallies, and they include the Safari, which was said in Finland to be under consideration by FISA for removal from the championship because of difficulties getting it to conform to essentially European standards. What complete and utter rubbish! GP